The Kingfisher Theater's annual holiday production of "The Devil, the Witch, and the Blacksmith" is now in its third year, and though the play has had its shortcomings, the latest iteration has considerably more charm.
A decidedly bizarre Christmas tale adapted from Nikolai Gogol's story "The Night Before Christmas," Amy Canfield and Kevin Dedes's telling once again centers on the cozy Ukrainian village of Dikanka. Satan himself has taken up a personal grudge against a religiously upright blacksmith named Vakula, who has painted a particularly unflattering depiction of the Devil for the local church.
In an effort to undermine Vakula's righteous reputation and ruin his hopes for true love with the beautiful but narcissistic Oksana, the Devil sets out on a series of subterfuges —including taking away the moon at night and enlisting the help of Vakula's mother Solokha, who happens to be a witch.
Needless to say, "The Devil, the Witch, and the Blacksmith" is not your average Christmas story. Director Kevin Dedes and his ensemble embrace the far-fetched, fantastical nature of it, but not so much that they take themselves too seriously. The play has been significantly revamped since last year, and the changes noticeably elevate the material.
This time around, Dedes has opted for a smaller cast of seven actors, which reinforces the small-town feel of Dikanka. The roles have been completely recast, and the new performers succeed in selling their exceedingly flawed characters by emphasizing the absurdity of their actions.
Jackson Mosher is enjoyable as a fiendish yet endearingly quirky Devil, playing him as an amusing troublemaker. David Jacobs takes on the hopelessly infatuated simpleton Vakula, imbuing the blacksmith with an interesting mix of self-awareness and naiveté. And Tina Hoffman brings welcome energy and charisma to the insufferably self-centered Oksana, with a provincial air that is entirely fitting.
This highly capable trio helps to galvanize the story and energize the action in ways that were once missing. The script is still loaded with saucy double entendres, but Dedes seems to have given the actors more freedom to improvise. The resulting ad libs make for some genuinely humorous interplay, especially between Mosher and Jacobs.
The play does have its missteps. At times, the characters' play-by-play explanation of the plot development is tiresome, and for a play that has tightened up and quickened its pace substantially, the second half loses some steam all the same. The comedy is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but the cast's commitment to story make that fact forgivable.
The Kingfisher Theater is to be commended here. It would have been all too easy to continue the status quo and trot out a carbon copy of last season's "The Devil, the Witch, and the Blacksmith." Instead, Dedes and his company have retooled the work, trimming unnecessary elements and fine-tuning character portrayals while remaining true to the delightfully weird essence of Gogol's story.